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Desires For An Ideal Community
Of Women

THE EIGHTH WEEK OF Women and Organizations is titled on the syllabus "Circles within Circles: Dilemmas of Belonging in a Women's Group." Here I begin to pale, for I know what is coming. We are going to read my book about a lesbian community. From experiences of past years, I know that the students approach this book with high expectations that, within its pages, they will find an ideal women's community. If women are good, then lesbians, they now expect, must be exceptionally good in their relationships with one another.

An important part of the students' experience in reading The Mirror Dance: Identity in a Women's Community will be coming to terms with the fact that a lesbian community is primarily real.[1] It is not a social expression of ideal female sensitivity and responsiveness, but rather an expression of many of the women's ways we have been reading about all along in the course, with the added dimension that its members are lesbians. These are women who are willing to be intimate and erotic with other women, and who are more acknowledging of the depth of their emotional needs for other women than straight women often are.


The lesbians in my book formed an informal self-help community in a midwestern town. The book presents a collective portrait of their community through the voices of its more than sixty members. The Mirror Dance is written in an unusual way, I tell the students. Reading it is like being taken into the community. The book focuses on conflicts between merger and separation, between an individual's feeling part of a group and feeling apart from it.

Homophobia In The Classroom

I am often impressed with the work the students do when they read The Mirror Dance. In the first few years I taught the course, I was moved when students who had initially been biased against lesbians would come to a different conclusion after reading the book and writing a paper about it, and they would be proud of having changed their views. The assignment I give on The Mirror Dance asks the students to trace their feelings as they read the book and to write about these feelings in a paper. In the end, they draw conclusions about the import, to them, of their own responses. What insights do they gain by considering their feelings?

The first two times I gave this assignment, I asked the students to add to the end of their papers a paragraph identifying characteristics of the lesbian community described in The Mirror Dance that were those of a women's organization. To my shock, each year, several of the students said, "I just cannot see this lesbian community as a women's organization. It is the opposite of what I think a women's group is." To these students, it seemed, lesbians were not women. After receiving such responses in the second year, I decided to delete the extra paragraph from my assignment. I was not ready to take on the problem of rejection of lesbianism that the students' views pointed to.

In their papers about The Mirror Dance, the students reveal a range of emotional responses:[2]

I could really identify with the women in The Mirror Dance who were searching for their own identity within the group. (Yoko)


I saw many parallels to my own experience. (Rose)

I found myself very emotionally involved. … I felt confused and frustrated. I also felt fascinated by the complex workings of the interactions of the women. (Julia)

I was disappointed by the community examined in The Mirror Dance because it was far less noble and infused with political meaning than I thought it should be. (Kim)

As I progressed through the book, my feelings switched from surprise to acceptance, because all of a sudden the community didn't seem that weird. … The chapter on children really hit home with me. (Peggy)

I was sad because so many of the women felt they could not tell their parents. (Arlene)

In general, I feel the students appreciate The Mirror Dance and its multivoiced style, and they use it to come to valuable recognitions about lesbians and about themselves. The problems that arise concern how they judge the social reality described in the book. In class, when the students discuss their feelings in response to the study, I mostly listen, for I have found that the students feel very differently when reading The Mirror Dance than I did when writing it. The main difference is that they view the community depicted in the book as a group that does not live up to their ideals. To say they feel disappointed puts their response mildly. They feel disheartened, painfully let down, disturbed, confused, and angry. Not all feel this way, but most do. They do not like the way members of this lesbian community gossip about one another, or exclude male children from a Thanksgiving dinner, or conform to group dress norms that stress androgynous clothes, or how they deal with their personal relationship difficulties. They do not like how the women speak of themselves in terms of other women—that Mary is Jo's lover and Amy's former lover, for example.

The students report feeling most positively about the community after reading the chapters in the last section of the book that deal with the outside world, and with how members experience difficulties at work and among their families that cause them to keep their lesbianism a secret.


The students like being drawn into the lesbian world described in the book. However, most say they would not want to be part of a community like this one. For these students, the community is "them," and the students have specific troubles with what "they" do.

It always seems curious to me that when the students read The Mirror Dance , they take as true many of the negative statements about the community that are made by the women in the pages of my book. They assume the community is what its members say it is, without seeing beyond the surface nature of the complaints to the more underlying social reality. In a way, despite their protests, the students in my classes become extensions of the voices of the women in the book. For instance, a student will say, "Marge says the group felt suffocating to her. That's how I felt." Or, "Leslie says the community was only interested in emotional trauma. I wouldn't be able to stand that." However, I have noticed that the students are selective in which complaints they identify with. Certain criticisms made by the women of the community are seized upon more than others, which suggests to me that something more is occurring than simply personal identification.

After I have listened to the students' responses and read their papers, I come to the next class session seeking to explain a few of the community dynamics I think some of them do not understand. I want to explain how a social group may not be exactly what its members think it is. Especially, because it is highly criticized by the students, I want to explain how gossip (talking about others and being talked about) is not necessarily bad, but, in this community, helpful and desirable. Individuals need to talk about each other in lesbian communities in order to learn about how to be a lesbian, or how to get along with each other, or to solve their problems. There are no lesbian television shows or large numbers of books, magazines, and public images, or grandmothers and mothers passing down instructions. Most self-knowledge must be created in face-to-face interactions and through word of mouth. When I offer such an explanation to the students, I think I am doing so because they lack skills for analyzing interactions in a lesbian setting. I do not think, although I often feel, that there is an emotional dimension to the students' apparent failure of sociological understanding.

To reject a group because it gossips too much seems to me a bit


strange. In part, this may be a rejection of what women traditionally do. It may represent a wish not to be associated with women's more familial and down-to-earth ways. By extension, I think, given the subject of our reading, it may also reflect a wish not to be caught in a web of lesbianism—a web of women being intimate with one another. In brief, I think I have overlooked the extent to which the students' discomforts with the community in The Mirror Dance are products of homophobia—of fears of being among lesbians, and of being a lesbian. Thus one distances oneself. A student says, "It's okay for them, but not for me," and points to specific behaviors she feels are intolerable, in order to keep intact a sense of herself as heterosexual, or as a woman apart from a lesbian community.

When I discuss The Mirror Dance with the students, I try to be careful of their emotional responses to the book so they will not feel intimidated by the fact that I wrote it, or by the fact that I am a lesbian. When I think about their feelings after they first discuss them, I consider what the students do not understand. In other words, I deal with their criticisms in intellectual terms. Thus, I do a parallel distancing to that done by the students. I do this to protect myself, for the community in The Mirror Dance was once my community. I was friends and lovers with women in it. When I lived there, I felt it was a very good community. It was not too constraining or too gossipy for me. When the students criticize this community, they criticize something I am very much identified with.

I think that, in part, the students judge the lesbian community in The Mirror Dance harshly because they are largely unaware of the degree to which heterosexual culture is so taken for granted as to make anything lesbian seem tainted and wrong. Yet I, too, have this problem. Why else would I shrink from confronting it in the students? I may see the lesbian community in my study as good and as acceptable, but I certainly view the lesbian in myself as less than acceptable. Or why would I feel I cannot tell the students they are hurting me with their views, that they are not granting to lesbians—and, by implication, to me—the same quality of respect, and equality of judgment, they grant to themselves? I have taught my course on women and organizations for eight years, but I have never once talked about the way lesbianism is rejected in it and


viewed, by most of the students, as undesirable. I urge the students to identify with separatism when we study it, but I do not make a similar request that they embrace lesbianism. Yet if I can ask the students to question their integrationist values, surely I can ask them to question their heterosexual values.

I have only recently come to feel that I ought to discuss with the students the issue of homophobia in our classroom. Sometimes, such as this past year, the homophobia is more evident to me. This year followed that in which I denied permission to the hostile male graduate student to take one of my courses. I felt that the students in my classroom now, who knew about that episode, were more afraid than usual. They avoided talking about the lesbian content of The Mirror Dance , and one graduate student attacked the book's style "on literary grounds," with a vehemence I could not understand other than as an attempt to separate herself from its lesbian subject matter. Usually, however, the homophobia is more masked and more invisible.

Sometimes, I think, it is visible only to me. The first year I taught the course, for instance, I was afraid to have the students read an article titled "Beyond 'Subjectivity': The Use of the Self in Social Science," which I had written about the process of researching and writing The Mirror Dance .[3] It discussed my personal experiences in the community and, in particular, my having sexual desires toward some of the women I interviewed. The article had already been published in a sociological journal, but I kept it out of my course reader because I feared that if the students were to read it, they would fear me in the classroom. I thought that if I subsequently put a hand on a student's shoulder, she would feel I was trying to seduce her and that everyone in the class would look at me and see a child molester. Finally, approaching the week when we were to read The Mirror Dance , I reconsidered my decision. I wanted the students to have my story of how I did my study. I also wanted not to be driven by fear. Fortunately, the students liked the article. It seemed not to frighten them so much as to make them feel more appreciative of my study and of me. I think it helped relieve their fears because it spoke of sexual matters explicitly and in a way that was personal to me.

But my point is not the students' fears, but my own degree of fear. Homophobia has affected my Women and Organizations class not only


because the students fear lesbianism, but because I do. Occasionally the homophobia in my classroom is evident to me, such as when I feel the students in a class withholding themselves when we discuss The Mirror Dance , or when I am aware of withholding myself, as in not giving out my article. However, most of the time, the fear of lesbianism—of being intimate with other women, and of choosing women over men—is present in the classroom but underground. I would like to speak more about homophobia in my classes, but I am not sure, at present, how to do so.

Desires For An Ideal Class

By the time we have finished The Mirror Dance , the students are edgy. We are near the end of the term and something has not happened yet. There remains, I think, a nagging question, What about that ideal women's community? I have found that, before I know it, this question can become, what's wrong with this class? Although I have moved separatism two weeks earlier, divided the class into subgroups for greater intimacy, and offered The Mirror Dance as a way to come to terms with the disappointment a community of women can arouse, the students still are unresolved on this issue. In the later weeks of the course, some of the students now find our class the women's group that is not ideal enough. They look around the classroom and at me and say that when they speak, they do not get a connected enough response from other students. They say they feel alone. What good is this class as a women's organization if such a sense of isolation exists for them?

Hearing their complaints, I feel at fault. Why could I not have done better? I think. If I ask the students what I can do to relieve the difficulty, they tell me to change the place where I sit, or to direct the conversation so that it relates them better to one another and leaves them feeling less alone. However, since I feel that the underlying problems are such that I cannot fix them in this way, I refuse to change the place where I sit, or to direct the conversation differently. Instead, I try to explain to the students the source of the problem by discussing dynamics of women's groups. I hope that if the students understand our situation better, they will not judge the class, and me, so harshly.

The main explanatory variable I point out to them is that, it seems to


me, there is a strong desire for union among women. In our class, we feel we should all be as one, that no individual should feel isolated from others. Yet the way I teach tends to frustrate that desire. In my classes, I often isolate individuals. I ask each student to speak from her experience—about her own inner thoughts and feelings—and to have that always be the focus. This is different from an other-orientation, which women often feel more comfortable with, and it is different from challenging others' thoughts, as is common in most university classes.

My goal is the very different one of having the students articulate their own individual experiences in response to our readings and research assignments. This results in a classroom where what happens, most often, is that one person speaks and everyone else listens attentively. Then another person speaks. We develop a whole that sounds more like a mosaic, in the sense referred to in our "Feminist Process" reading, than it sounds like a traditional classroom discussion, or even like the normal exchange in a women's group. The exchange in a women's group will usually not be as directed by one individual—in this case, by me as the teacher—nor will it have as great an internal psychological focus. Rather, the priority will be the creation of a surface feeling of agreement among the women present. Yet I seek to individualize women precisely because we are usually merged. I feel more comfortable with such individualizing, and more threatened by a surface sense of merger, than perhaps others do.

I feel good listening to all the different individual experiences that are discussed by the students in the kinds of classes I create. I therefore probably overlook the discomfort my method of teaching may cause others. For me, in hearing about everyone's experiences, and offering my own, the air seems full of so much evidence for learning that I do not stop to think that this type of class process will be foreign to many of the students. Their classes have been about challenge and counter-challenge and about dealing with disembodied ideas. Their desire, in a women's world, is for a high connection between speakers, an explicit bridge between experiences, a oneness among women who elsewhere are divided from one another. My approach produces a oneness, with its focus on women's experiences, but it is not the type of oneness the students expect.


I think there is a similarity between the way I run classes and the way I structured The Mirror Dance . In both cases, I wished to present multiple voices reflecting on different aspects of a common reality—a lesbian community, or women's experiences in organizations. In both cases, I offered these voices without much authorial intervention—without much explicit narrative commentary in the case of The Mirror Dance , and without much traditional teacherly authority in the classes. In both, I have avoided summarizing, or linking, statements made by individuals, but instead want the experiences presented to speak to one another. I say this because when I am criticized for how I teach, I often feel I have failed to do as I should, rather than seeing that I am doing something different. When I look at my study and see that I created this kind of process before, I can then view my approach to teaching less critically and see that it has its own integrity.[4]

If I have drawn one conclusion about "women and organizations" from teaching my course over the years, it is that the key to understanding women's groups is to think about the desire for oneness. I think this desire is central to how women feel about women's groups, to why the groups exist and fall apart, and to the problems the groups have. Oneness is what women most wish for, and fear, in their relationships with other women. It is why lesbianism is both sought and feared. Often, because much conspires to divide women from one another, women feel a great hunger for connection with each other. They bring that hunger to feminist classes.

When I try to tell the students in my class about my thoughts on desires for oneness, however, I never think it makes much difference. We are near the end of the quarter and all I seem to have done is to raise their desires for an ideal community of women only to frustrate those desires. This past year, because the students' frustrations were more near the surface than usual, I asked the students to go around the room in one of our last class sessions and to say what an ideal women's organization would provide for them. What would they like in their ideal women's group?

I can find no notes of what they said that day. Perhaps I just listened. I remember that the students answered seriously: "My ideal women's group would accept me." "It should be nonsexual." "Maybe it's a lot to


ask. …" "I know I'm supposed to be realistic about this." "It would understand me." "I don't want false support, but. …" "It wouldn't be a big group." Their voices cracked and were tearful and hesitant and the room was very quiet. I had been asking the students, with the previous Mirror Dance assignment, to come to terms with the reality of women's groups, rather than having expectations the groups could not live up to. The students were, therefore, reluctant to admit to having idealistic desires, so they prefaced many of their remarks—"I still have these wishes." "I know, maybe it's unrealistic." "I don't know what to do about it, but this is how I feel." We went around the circle and the class ended in silence. "If I want something, I go out and make it happen," one of the students said toward the end. "I don't know if I'll ever find it," said another.

Although I do not know if that tearful discussion meant much to the students, it meant a great deal to me. I liked hearing them speak of their ideals. The students may have felt so far from having their ideals met that the discussion mainly saddened them. They may have been thinking of tests they had to take and other classes they had to go to. But they did stay around longer than usual after the class was over, planning their next subgroup meetings.

Looking Back

The readings for the final week of the course fall under the title "Transformative Visions." These readings suggest to me the importance of acknowledging the "I"—the idiosyncratic and the individual—in women's experiences, and also the importance of processes of identification across boundaries between women. If women's experiences are to transform other ways of being, says Evelyn Fox Keller in her book on women and science, their difference must be seen. Further, we want our awareness of women's experiences to change our sense not only of what is true, but also of how truth is to be revealed. Keller discusses the life of geneticist Barbara McClintock, who approaches scientific understanding with "a feeling for the organism" and an attitude of "listening to what the material has to tell you." Only when McClintock feels "at one" with the corn plants she is studying can she truly understand


them, Keller says, suggesting that "questions asked about objects with which one feels kinship are likely to differ from questions asked about objects one sees as unalterably alien."[5]

Dealing with self-knowledge in an essay, "On Keeping a Notebook," Joan Didion advises her readers and herself to remember the personal basis for our observations. "Our notebooks give us away," she suggests, "for however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable 'I."' Nancy Mairs, in an essay about her experience in a psychiatric hospital, speaks of what her female gender has to do with her ending up "behind bars," and of how, on getting out of the hospital, "I did not get well. I got functional, which is another condition altogether." Similarly, I think, women often can be extremely functional, our strength hiding our feelings of discontent and despair. Patricia Hill Collins, in Black Feminist Thought , discusses African American women's experiences and how, in looking at different women's experiences, one must "pivot the center," focusing on each experience as a totality, or as the main frame of reference, rather than imposing a frame of reference from outside. I have tried to encourage the students to do such pivoting in looking at their own and others' experiences in the course. To illustrate the process, I also assign a reading about the Pueblo Indian potter Maria Martinez and the representation of self in clay, as well as several other discussions by women about developing vocabularies relevant to their experiences, especially in art. I want to suggest to the students that there are many forms for expressing female individuality and that they ought to continue to write about themselves after the course is over.[6]

The students' final research papers are due at the next to last class. The students have been working on these papers for a month, independently of me, pursuing a topic of interest to them. They have chosen topics such as female leadership, what if female ways of doing things were valued in organizations, subtle gender dynamics in organizations, glass ceilings, role models and mentors, mothering in organizations, women viewing themselves as men, managing family and career, women comparing themselves with other women, dynamics of minority


women's organizations, dynamics of women's collectives, women's professionalism, superior-subordinate relationships among women, women's boundaries and invisibility in organizations, why women deny gender and oppression, sexual harassment, entrepreneurial women, and self-reflection on one's own gender history. The students write personally about their feelings in relation to their findings. They put a great deal of work into their research and feel that their final papers are extremely rewarding and the climax of their individual work in the course.

For the very last class session, the students write a course summary paper in which they review their experiences during the entire quarter—experiences in class discussions, in subgroup meetings, in doing research and papers, and in doing readings. I ask them to identify insights and key learnings that were especially important to them, and to describe their learning process over time. Often I do not know how much this course has meant to the students until I read their summary papers at the end. The students say, for instance:[7]

CHARLENE : My viewpoint has changed dramatically.

JULIA : I look back and feel proud for all the reading and writing I did.

KELLY : Initially, I was hostile to your teaching methods. However, since I knew you had something to offer, I tried to keep an open mind. This has been a struggle for me. Upon reflection, I am glad that I sat and listened. Instead of trying to fill my head with facts that I will probably forget, this class has changed my mental processes.

RACHEL : I think I have reacted to and learned from the structure of the class as well as from the content of it.

YOKO : Throughout this course, I realized how much I have adopted "masculine" ways of looking at and interacting with the world. In a desire to do well in school and please others, I think I lost the little girl and consequently the woman that is inside me. Discovering that I had shoved my "femaleness"


aside was a very difficult thing to admit. Although I am looking forward to getting back in touch with the woman inside me, it is not easy and I know that doing so may upset the status quo of my current life. I feel like a baby bird that was just pushed out of the nest by the mother bird in order to learn how to fly. I haven't flown before, but I know that I will learn how before I hit the ground.

The students often speak emotionally:

MARIE : When I began feeling the pain and reality of these wounds that I had been hiding for so long, I wanted to just barrel in head first. I wanted to scream and cry in our class discussions. I remember the power of some of the emotions I was having but knew that I must be careful—these types of feelings frighten people and I knew that I didn't need, couldn't take, more alienation and rejection. Eventually, I began to feel more comfortable. I very much appreciated the structure of the class. I felt secure in the details of the class—how the chairs were set up, what order business was taken care of.

I now feel a bit like a woman warrior. I am proud to be a woman. It's funny because during my undergraduate years, I was very ashamed of being female and pretty much denied all female traits that I had. I feel like this class gently ventured with me to my insides, where I found parts of me that I can now reclaim, embrace, and rejoice in. It empowers me and gives me pride in myself. It's accepting, loving, and valuing me. If I'm to live, this is necessary for me, instead of trying to kill myself, part by part. I look at it now as a life or death situation—that's how serious it's been for me.

ROSE : I have grown immensely. Compelled as I am to assign numbers, I would say this is 25% due to my "single-mom" existence, 25% due to applying myself to hard work and study in my engineering master's program, and 50% to WS-235. This course has caused a permanent change in my thought patterns. I will catch myself at the start of self-doubt and analyze a situation


as a combination of being both an engineer and a woman. While I still profess a desire to achieve financial and personal success, I no longer feel like adding the phrase, "like a man." I want the same opportunities certainly, but I like being a woman. Accepting this, I can now say, gulp, that I am a feminist.

ANGELICA : Before the class, I had never considered starting my own business. I assumed that I would simply enter corporate America and deal with the "old boy" network. But out of this class, I got the idea of starting my own law firm. Maybe it will not happen, maybe it will. I don't know, but I feel this class has given me other options for life that I would never have turned to.

BETH : I have started to rely on women more, and seek only women to share my time with. When we focused on women's work, I felt like calling my mother and telling her how much her commitment means to me. She has done invisible work in our house for twenty years, and I didn't realize it until we began our discussion. I have learned to open up doors inside my mind, doors that I didn't even know were there.

STEVEN : Well, I was one of only two men in a class filled and dominated by women and women's issues. This alone should be enough to figure out that I have learned a great deal.

Because the students' course summary papers tell me what the students value about their learning, they put a buffer between me and the official university course evaluations that I will read later. The official evaluations, written on computer forms, give numerical rankings to features of a course and to the teacher. They are statements I would do away with if I could. The evaluation forms are known to be biased against women teachers and feminist classes and to provide an opportunity for students to strike out at vulnerable teachers. Although I have done very well on these forms, I dislike them, and I always find the experience of reading them to be painful. I have never gained information from them that has helped me to improve my teaching. For that, I need


to elicit in-person qualitative responses from the students, which I do, to some extent, with the course summary papers.

The students' discussion of their papers in the last class provides a sense of closure for the course. To me, the last session of the quarter is always important. I warn the students, for weeks beforehand, that they should not miss it. However, the significance of the course does not lie in any one final outcome. All along, there have been important moments. In my view, the most significant learning lies in the deeper, and often unselfconscious, emotions and insights that the students take with them, and that I take with me. This course is not easy to summarize. When I think back on it, the best I can ever do is to remember a few vivid events from my experiences in the classroom that have the feel of vignettes.

The first year I taught the course, for example, it was not until the next to last class session that one student told the class, quickly and softly, her words slurring together, "I am a lesbian." Two years later, another student would not tell the class that she had been Miss America the year before. She was afraid that if the other students knew, they would think she was an empty-headed blond and not take seriously anything she said. She was, in fact, a feminist and highly critical of the beauty pageant system.

An African American man sat quietly in class one year, not speaking much even when I encouraged him to speak. At the end of the quarter, he wrote in his final paper, "I feel I have been in another culture by listening to the women in the class. Had I spoken, I would not have had this experience." A member of the men's football team took the class one spring. Growing up, he was closer to his mother and sister than to his father, who had been a Nazi. In his papers, he spoke as if, on the inside, he felt like a woman.

A few times, women in the subgroups, which met in student homes or cafes, worked it out so they could meet without the man in their group. One year, one of the men blended in with the women in the larger class to an unusual degree. He bent his head down among the women around him and spoke with similar feelings and confusions as they had. He was a business student working toward an MBA and he had been a feminist for a long time. He said he felt more at home in our


class than in his other classes. Another year, one woman decided to challenge everything I said.

Members of the women's swim team sat together at one end of the table one year. The other students complained that they passed notes and talked among themselves. Another year, three members of different women's sports teams did not sit together, but often when they spoke at the start of the term, I felt an increase in homophobia in the air. At the start of the first class session one quarter, a woman student introduced herself by saying, "I am a black feminist butch dyke and I hate men." Everyone liked her.

One year, one member of the class was a sixty-year-old undergraduate completing her BA. When other students in the class were having trouble calling themselves feminists, she said, "I have seen all these words change. Now it's 'feminist.' I think it will change again. One day I just decided to take the plunge and I started calling myself a feminist."

One year, a businesswoman returning to school thirty years after graduating took the course. She commuted down from her job in the city, was always on time, did the readings voraciously, spoke in class often, and appreciated me. Another older reentry student was present that year, a woman completing her master's degree in engineering. She also did all the work and even more, spoke her mind in class, and appreciated the opportunity of the class. Although undergraduates will often complain about the amount of work in a course, especially a course with a heavy load like this one, no one complained that year. Class discussions were unusually thoughtful and had a strong sense of, "Yes, this is true in the real world," which was provided by the two reentry women. The attitude of the students toward me was a valuing one. The class had a warmer feeling than it did any other year.

The first year I taught the course, an Austrian woman sat in as a guest in one of our sessions. She told the class about a two-thousand member traditional women's business organization she was studying in Switzerland and spoke of many of the same characteristics the students in the class had found when they interviewed their grandmothers and friends at the start of the quarter. These characteristics included consensus decisionmaking, personalized relationships, gossip, flex time, and a decentralized, leaderless organizational structure. Consensus decision-making


takes longer, she told the students, but implementation time is then shorter. The students, that day, seemed shocked and relieved to hear her, as was I. We had all, I think, been uncertain about whether there was truth to the characteristics we had found. One year, I had two graduate student auditors from Denmark. They took in all the material of the course looking for parallels with their country. One of them said repeatedly, "In our country, the women and men look more similar in how they dress, but it is the same. It's very bad there. The system is not equal."

One year, an engineering student cried inexplicably in a class session near the end of the quarter. We were discussing separatism and she said she felt she already had too many burdens. Now she was being asked to add another—to find time to become a member of a women's group. I told her she need not join a women's group, but that did not solve her problem. By now, she had a strong desire to be part of a women's group. She fell off her bike on her way to our last class. I kept feeling I had caused her to fall by upsetting her with my course.

After the course was over one year, I received a letter from an undergraduate who had sat in class with her head down glowering into her notebook very often, making it known to me that she approved of neither what I was teaching nor how I was teaching it. "I've had time these past few days to think," she wrote. "In the class, I rejected again and againt what you said. Perhaps that is because you wanted so much for us to believe it and you were so sure we eventually would. I didn't want to be predictable, but I'm afraid I am. And now when I say what you said, people think I'm as crazy as I thought you were."[8]

Each year when Estelle Freedman has been my guest, I have introduced her as a professor of history and an expert on the subject of separatism, whom I know as a colleague. I never tell the class that she is my lesbian lover and has been for over twelve years. I have been afraid the students will look at us and see sexual images and then discount the importance of separatism. I fear, too, that they will view my having Estelle as a guest as morally wrong because she is my partner (nepotism), or that they will view my having her help me with separatism as a weakness on my part. Yet, is it better to learn about separatism from an acquaintance of your teacher, or to learn about it from a lesbian couple at your


university? The latter has implications for why separatism is important, and who it is important to—who will fight to keep it as an option for themselves and other women.

It was not until my third year of teaching the course that I began asking the students to write all their papers in the first person. Their papers then became more interesting for me to read. It was as if the students were sitting at their computers typing out their ends of personal conversations with me.

One year when the course was still cross-listed with the business school, ninety students turned out at the first class session for a seminar that would be limited to twenty-five. The turnouts were big for a couple of years afterward until we dropped the business school listing. Since then, I have had to learn not to measure my success by numbers.

The composition of the class has made a difference to how it has gone each year. I think I do best or, at least, I like best having people of mixed backgrounds, ages, and levels, both undergraduate and graduate students, and students from different professional programs in the university—engineering, business, education. I do fine with men present even if I think it would be better for the women students if the class were only women. The course has been easier for me to teach, and more rewarding, when I have had more older returning students in it, and when a small but significant number of the students are committed feminists. The students do work I cannot do myself by affecting each other and indicating their importance to one another, even when they are afraid to let others know who they are. Their behaviors indicate, I think, the extreme importance women's groups have for their members.

This is not a course I will always teach. It has, therefore, seemed desirable to me to record some of the ideas and experiences of it. This course has been central to the development of my thinking about women. Perhaps one's first feminist, or women's studies, course is often like this one has been for me. It requires that a teacher figure out her basic views, such as, "How do I feel, and think, about women? How can I bring others along with me?" From these two questions have emerged both the substance and process of my Women and Organizations course.

I did not initially view my own teaching as an instance of feminist


teaching, but I have come to feel it is.[9] I think that feminist teaching is often hard for those who do it because a great deal is expected of us—by both others and ourselves—and because we often feel we fail to meet those expectations. Especially, I think, feminist courses are hard to teach because of the involvement of the teacher. She gives a great deal and often feels, "This is not about them—the students, or other women. This is me." When students reject the feminist teacher's lessons or viewpoints, they are not rejecting a distant subject or an intellectual conclusion, but something more sensitive, the teacher's way of being. Feminist classes are based on a shared stake in a movement for women's freedom, or in the fact of being a woman. Beyond that, there are many differences among their members. The classes require that a teacher remain open to her students in a way that parallels the openness she asks of them. It is, I think, a shared vulnerability to other women that gives feminist classes their excitement and their distinct character.

Finally, students expect feminist classes to fulfill ideals they have that are often frustrated elsewhere. The classes contain many of the conflicts between women's ways and a university structure that are a recurrent focus in my course. Although feminist classes cannot fully escape the male structure of a university that houses them, they often make their own kind of room within it. How much room, and what values that room encourages, depend on how much both a teacher and her students are willing to be present, in mutually helpful ways, during that brief period—in my case, ten weeks—when a miracle is expected to occur. I am always amazed at the big changes that can occur for students in so short a time. "This course has changed my life." "I will never see things the same again." "I will raise my sons differently." "I will quit my job." "I will join a women's law firm." "When I go back to my country, I will work for women," the students say, and I wonder about the truth of it, thinking all this must have been in the works anyway, and doubting that their ideals will be carried through. I tend to believe that nothing major can happen in a short period, but I forget how important ideas of gender are, and how students will work to produce learning that far exceeds the goals of any teacher.

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